Sunday, 16 April 2006

Whatever Happened to Easter Programming?

Today Christians celebrated their Easter. Since Thursday Jews have been celebrating Passover (which continues until this coming Thursday at sunset). And while these holidays are important to a good many people, one wouldn't know it from the television networks. There was very little in the way of programming dedicated to Passover, the Christian's Easter, or even so much as the season of spring. While I am neither Christian nor Jewish, I think this is a grevious oversight on the networks' parts.

It wasn't always this way. Growing up I can remember that the networks would show various specials this time year. Naturally, given that the majority of people in the U.S. are Christian (or at least nominally so), most of them had an Easter theme. Rankin/Bass, the animation studio which dominated holiday specials in the Sixties and Seventies, produced no less than three Easter specials alone. Here Comes Peter Cottontail was the first, in 1971. Curiously, it was not based on the song of the same name, but on the Priscilla and Otto Friedrich novel The Easter Bunny That Overslept. They followed this special with another, The First Easter Rabbit in 1976. The First Easter Rabbit is unusual for a Rankin/Bass producton. Best known for their stop motion work (think Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer), this particular special used cel animation (think Frosty the Snowman). They produced another Easter special the following year, The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town, which was in some ways a sequel to their popular Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Fred Astaire gave his voice to the mailman narrator just as he had in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, this time explaining the origins of the Easter Bunny.

Rankin/Bass were not the only people who could be counted on for specials for nearly every holiday. Lee Mendelson-Bill Melendez produced Peanuts specials for nearly every special occasion, including Easter. It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown was a variation on the Great Pumpkin idea, with Linus insisting that the Easter Beagle will bring everyone eggs. The Peanuts weren't the only comic strip characters with an Easter special. A Family Circus Easter debuted in 1982, based on the famous one panel strip by Bill Keane.

Even classic animated characters received their own Easter specials back in the day. In 1977 Warner Brothers produced the special Bugs Bunny's Easter Funnies. It pretty much featured classic Warner Brothers shorts within a framework story in which Bugs must replace the Easter Bunny. From my childhood into early adulthood, there were many other animated Easter specials. There was Fat Albert's Easter Special, Peter and the Magic Egg, and so on.

Of course, not all Easter programming was animated. And not all of them concentrated on eggs and Easter bunnies. Some of the programming that the networks once showed this time of year drew upon Christianity, while at least one classic film typically shown this time of year was based on events portrayed in the Torah. Growing up I can remember that for a few years NBC showed the classic rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar this time of year. And for a time the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth was a staple of the season. The all time champion for being aired this time of year, however, goes to the classic Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments. I swear it has been shown every year since the Seventies. Based on the stories of Moses and how he led the Hebrews out of Egypt from the Torah, the movie is arguably a great choice for this time of year. It could appeal to both Christians and Jews alike, making the only Easter/Passover special ever shown.

Regardless, this Passover and this Easter saw far fewer shows dedicated to the season airing on the networks. ABC aired It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown just a few days ago. Last night they continued their annual airing of The Ten Commandments. That has been the extent of the networks' observation of the season.

Of course, the fact that there are not very many Passover or Easter specials being shown the past several years should not be surprising. I have written in this blog of how the networks don't show nearly as many Yuletide specials as they once did. The truth be told, they don't show very many specials dedicated to any holiday any more. I can remember a time when there were several Halloween specials on the air. Beyond It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I can't think of any that aired last year. As to Thanksgiving, the only thing I can think of that they have shown of late is the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Personally, I find this sad. Holidays play an important role in our society. They serve as a break from the humdrum, workaday world. They give people a chance to escape from their everyday lives and to enjoy themselves. In the case of holiday specials, they give individuals a break from usual network programming, as well as envelop them in the spirit of the holiday. A Christian watching Jesus of Nazareth may well be reminded of the meaning of the holiday to him or her. Quite simply, holiday specials help in maintaining holidays as a part of our lives. True, we don't need them to celebrate the holidays, but it is nice to be able to watch programming oriented to a holiday when that holiday rolls around.

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